pulp and pith … current affairs blog

Or, six things I would change about Independent.co.uk if I had the power.

1.    The funny brown colour of the masthead and dividers. It’s a vaguely soothing shade, I suppose – reminds me of Caramac bars – and it does tie in with the print product: but it does not grab attention. And it certainly does not go well with blue.

2.    The website’s habit of crashing. It makes browsing sticky and awkward. Don’t publish the page if it won’t load properly! (Unless it’s only me who has this problem… if so, apologies).

3.    The font. Increase the size and make the line spacing bigger. Or send a free magnifying glass to every reader. Your choice.

4.    The lack of space. The overload of information and adverts on the page makes it hard to pinpoint what you want. Clarity is vital. Let the site breathe. Make it easier to navigate, and get rid of the endless succession of boxes and blocks. If you’re going to divide something off, do it with purpose. Don’t just whack a thin blue rectangle around it.

5.    There are not enough pictures. Even the most eyeball-blisteringly committed internet news reader needs to rest their eyes on a photo or cartoon now and again. Including extra photos would not require that much more effort or money.

6.    Independent Minds. Even if you know what you want to read about or comment upon, finding it ain’t easy. This part of the website has one or two leading articles in prominent positions, but there’s no organisation or prioritisation of information beyond that. Fewer lists and more editorial input on where articles are placed and how noticeable they are, depending on what’s popular and what’s going on in terms of breaking news, would help.

the independent

I have fond feelings for The Independent. In my youth my family were religious Daily Mail readers and it was my designated ‘I’m rebelling’ newspaper (yeah, I was a real tearaway).

Am I twisting the knife by dissing their website? Of course not. It’s constructive criticism. Presuming that the next Indie owner wants to be constructive with his or her new plaything…

Currently buyers are being sought to take it and its Sunday variant on. Both titles have suffered flagging sales due to stagnant brand identity, and are in a lot of debt (bosses are putting off announcing their annual results, which doesn’t bode well).

The Indie’s future is uncertain. Perhaps the brand’s fate was sealed when the daily paper increased its price to £1, something that the other national dailies remain just shy of.

Codenames

Posted on: March 22, 2009

The fashion of conferring upon children, who cannot be named by the media for legal reasons, codenames like Baby P or Baby OT, strikes me as bizarre.

Whatever happened to the standard line, “[insert the baby/infant/child/teenager/age of youngster here] who cannot be named for legal reasons”?

I imagine that these kids are given these codenames in court, so lawyers and judges can refer to them specifically, rather than describing them by their age or as a member of an age group.

But why has the media decided to use the same language as the courts? At least the standard line makes it clear that it is the legal system which has prevented them from naming names.

Perhaps journalists find it easier to construct sentences when they have more than one way of describing the subject.

Maybe it’s a good way of labelling the story, making it easier to search for online and easier to refer to (like the suffix -gate which is commonly attached to crises and gaffes).

The codenames, which tend to consist of one or two letters, depersonalise the children, aligning them with well-catalogued library books, making it seem that they are just one of many codenamed children who have been in a similar situation.

However, by juxtaposing emotive images and details of the story with a cold one-letter moniker, the impact the words have on readers can be heightened.

Indeed, with the high-profile Baby P case, and the Baby A case in Doncaster, a wave of people have said that they dislike the use of the codenames because they robbed the children in question of dignity and individuality.

I think the media has been tricked into thinking that giving these children codenames is the best way describe them, because this is how the law describes them. Codenames seem discrete and accurate, and appear to nail the subject down like names do.

In reality, codenames are jargon. They obscure the identity of the child and make his or her plight seem the product of a callous conveyor belt system – as if Baby P was preceded by Baby O, and will be followed by Baby Q…

The Facebook powers-that-be have backtracked on plans to alter the social networking site’s terms of service.

For the full story, click here.

Facebook users and respected commentators expressed their concerns about the updated terms, which many thought would give Facebook unreasonable powers over the content people uploaded to the site, even if they decided to remove it at a later date – and Facebook listened.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool. More power to the people!

Furthermore, Facebook has recognised that any new terms of service need to be drawn up with input from their users, and have created a dedicated group which people can join if they want to have their say.

I am surprised that Mark Z and his fellow Masters of Facebook thought that they could get away with changing the terms of service without anyone noticing.

This saga will be a cautionary tale for other social networking sites. If you give people a voice, and a platform, and a share of power, they will use it. Expect nothing less.

(Wouldn’t you just hate to be the person lumbered with sifting through the thousands of responses Facebook will be getting from their terms of service feedback group?

I’m not sure how useful the information that filters through from this group will be, but perhaps this move is more symbolic than practical.)

Friends, I tried to fit my postgrad journalism course checklist into one blog post – and failed. So consider this the first in a series of posts about what kind of things student-journos-in-waiting, like my good self, should be looking out for.

Currently finessing my own course applications now, so I can’t say that this advice is tried and tested, but it comes from somebody who is currently trudging through it all. So if nothing else it’s up-to-date.

FINANCIAL SUPPORT

If lack of money is proving to be an obstacle on the road to Pulitzer Prize-winning, Times-editing, 24-hour Twittering domination of the media universe, get some solid financial support to see you through your chosen postgrad journalism course.

Funding opportunities are scarce, and competition is fierce, but like they say on the Lottery ads, you’ve got to be in it to win it. Stick your fingers into all the relevant pies, and with a bit of luck, you’ll get the help you need.

Firstly, explore your chosen university, college or training centre’s website, or call up their admissions secretary, and ask them about what they can offer you by way of funding. Some offer in-house studentships or bursaries, and most of the top postgrad courses have links to industry-run bursaries…  such as…

The Scott Trust, which is linked to the Guardian Media Group (GMG). These guys have 10 bursaries up for grabs, across broadcast, print and online journalism, for courses at many of the top universities. Guardianistas take note: these bursaries come with work experience. The more computer-savvy among you might also be interested in their technology bursaries.

The BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme is incredibly well-respected, and apparently has great scope if you are interested in online journalism, as well as broadcast journalism. The next intake of trainees will be in September 2009.

The Journalism Diversity Fund
, which is funded by The Scott Trust but managed by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), is for prospective students who are from socially or ethnically diverse backgrounds. These bursaries aim to help the media industry reflect the society they are supposed to represent by encouraging students from different walks of life to take to the profession.

Similarly, The George Viner Memorial Fund, which is run by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), awards funding to British Black or Asian students looking to train in broadcast, photo- or print journalism.

Wade through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) site and you could find out how to gain funding under the Professional Preparation Masters Scheme. Their website is literally hellish, so set aside some time to work it out. You deserve a grant for deciphering it!

If free money ain’t falling upon you like manna from heaven, despair ye not. Try a Career Development Loan, courtesy of the Government – guaranteed to be at least as extortionate as your student loan. These are designed for postgrads, so should be more sympathetic to student needs (more cider!) than your bog-standard bank loan.

If you’ve got some free time on your hands, approach the editor of your local newspaper/mastermind of a popular website/producer of a TV show/radio show producer or programme controller, and make him or her an offer they can’t refuse – ‘you pay for my training, I’ll become an asset to your team!’ In the current financial climate it’s not likely you’ll have much luck, but that’s how folk used to do it in the olden days, I do hear tell. The worst you’ll come away with is a pat on the back for being so damned cheeky and perhaps some work experience.

Finally, you could take a year out, live at home , get a job, and do some earnin’ before you start learnin’… it’s just a suggestion…

Got any top funding tips?

NEXT ON THE CHECKLIST: TALKIN’ BOUT THEIR REPUTATION

Stumbled home just in time to catch the start of the BBC 6 o’ clock news. Top of the top stories was bad news about Lloyds Banking Group. The juice: all signs point to HBOS (which merged with Lloyds to form the Lloyds Banking Group as part of a rescue deal) reporting losses of £10 billion for the whole of 2008. That’s £1.6 billion more than bosses were expecting.

As a result, shares in the Lloyds Banking group have tumbled by a third. Taxpayers, who own over 40% of HBOS, are not happy. Lloyds’ shareholders are seriously narked, and Eric Daniels, chief executive of Lloyds, who on Wednesday was defending the Lloyds-HBOS merger, seems increasingly vulnerable.

The funny thing is, rather than getting chancellor Alistair Darling, or treasury secretary Yvette Cooper, onto the programme to comment on the story, the BBC turned to Vince Cable, the shadow Lib Dem chancellor.

In general, when asked, Vince Cable has delivered insightful comment on the state of the economic climate so far, and his consistency has gained my respect. It is not surprising that he is so good at talking about the economy – he’s an economist by trade, with an impressive amount of experience working in the financial and business sectors. He has even lectured on economics at the University of Glasgow.

Although he occasionally turns to jargon to explain difficult concepts, in general he strikes me as a man who knows what he is talking about, which is refreshing. Whenever he pops up in the papers or on Andrew Marr’s couch, he always has something penetrating to say, and when he popped up on the news today he came across well in the 20 seconds of airtime he was given.

Not being an insider, he stuck to what he knew – emphasising the seriousness of the HBOS situation and suggesting that this loss, as record-breaking and worrying as it is, could be the just the first of many body blows dealt to banks and businesses in the coming year.

He reminds me of a endemically patient Maths teacher: frustrated with the shortcomings of his pupils but unwilling or unable to express them.

There is probably a reasonable explanation for the BBC News turning to Vince Cable for comment on this story on their 6 o’ clock programme – maybe Alistair Darling, Yvette Cooper, David Cameron and George Osborne were all otherwise engaged. However, it does show that they are willing to turn to him. Good news for the increasingly marginalised Lim Dems, eh?

Click here! to see Vince in action.

Interesting Vince Cable speculation in The Mole

The Guardian has bagged the first interview with Sharon Shoesmith: ex-head of childrens’ services at Haringey borough council, focal point of public and media attention over the death of Baby P .

Read the interview (click!)

Listen to the interview (click!)

The Times on the Baby P case (click!)

I was surprised by the strange blend of naivety and unswerving professionalism that is to be found in Shoesmith. Despite holding a position of responsibility and being reasonably experienced in her role, she repeatedly emphasises her shock at how fast and how viciously the the fallout of Baby P’s death ballooned into a grotesque circus of media outrage.  She also mentions that she didn’t anticipate that the case would be used as ammunition by political parties.

However, she insists that at Haringey all the right boxes were ticked and all the correct procedures were followed, before and after the death of Baby P. Nonetheless, Baby P slipped through the net, and a subsequent independent Ofsted report revealed some worrying things about the running of Haringey childrens’ services.

Hearing things from her perspective, you get a sense of the huge gulf that must have existed between the narrative being expertly woven by Baby P’s carers, perhaps in collaboration, unconsciously or not, with social workers, doctors and nurses; and the truth.

That is what makes people angry, I think – when helplessness oozes from the people who should have been taking charge. Ultimately, it was Baby P’s mother, her boyfriend and a lodger who were convicted of the crime of murdering Baby P, but the thought that Baby P could have survived, if only somebody working with him and his mother had done something differently, will taunt us for a long time.

Despite attempting to take practical action in the aftermath of Baby P’s death, Shoesmith couldn’t do enough to save her job. She was eventually dismissed, ‘squashed between the press and politics’, as she describes it.

I think it’s easy to forget that people in positions of power, like Sharon Shoesmith, are human. It is not hard to criticise the organisations and professionals culpable in Baby P’s death, but that criticism quickly became personal, as it is wont to do when emotionally charged cases are brought to light by the media. People’s desire to understand what had happened became the thirst for a scapegoat.

Sharon Shoesmith comes across, most of all, as a person trying (and failing) to deal with a nightmare professional scenario. In many ways she seems detached from the case. The buck stopped with her – ultimately Baby P was her services’ responsibility, and therefore her responsibility – but her description of events leading up to the child’s death is littered with references to other organisations and peppered with phrases like ‘they must have done this’, and ‘I suppose they thought that’.

Her council’s response after Baby P’s death was better, more focused and sure of itself, but nonetheless mistakes were made. Haringey failed to get its point across successfully in the media and to members of the public. Perhaps if she had allowed herself to step out of the council bubble and become more aware of how the man in the street perceived the Baby P case, she might have weathered the storm better, but as soon as that damning Ofsted report was published, it was inevitable that her head would roll.

What’s the story? Carole Thatcher, member of a team of roving reporters on The One Show, was sacked by the BBC yesterday for describing an unnamed tennis player as a ‘golliwog’.

You have eyes and ears; you have not spent the last few days in a coma; therefore you know all about it already – n’est-ce pas?

If not, the Guardian’s Organ Grinder blog has an excellent round-up of the best of the comment and coverage (here!)

The cool kids are doing it; and by doing it I mean weighing in with their opinions with the gusto of a champion jockey weighing in the night before a big race, anticipating the blow-out meal he’ll be able to gorge himself silly on in less than 24 hours time; so I’m going to do it too. Hold on to your stomachs.

Most of Carole Thatcher’s agent’s defence, and the point papers like the Telegraph are using to justify their defence of her, centres around the assertion that her use of the word was not intended as racist.

‘Golliwog’ is both a derogatory word meant to describe a black person and a cartoon character that was much-loved throughout most of the 20th century. When/if you use the word, both meanings are in play. A golliwog is both a cartoon character that awakens nostalgia in those old enough to remember when they were on our screens, and a racist caricature.

If you watch an old kids TV show and see a golliwog, you appreciate that they do entertain and delight, like any other cartoon character that appears on the show. At the same time you do feel a bit uncomfortable, because the characterisation of a golliwog is inherently racist. Only a blockhead would fail to notice that.

Carole Thatcher should have been aware (let’s hope that she is now aware) that a golliwog isn’t just a cartoon character, and that describing somebody as a golliwog is not the same saying “Oh, he looks a bit like that one with the hoover for a nose off the Teletubbies.”

Carole’s remark was made off-air, in The One Show’s green room, during a conversation about the Australian Open. Many papers have reported that the tennis player described as a ‘golliwog’ by Thatcher was Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, but this has yet to be confirmed, and the off-the-cuff, casual nature of the alleged conversation means that it is unlikely there will ever be a definitive version of events.

I think that the BBC was right to pick up on the fact that a reporter who exhibits an inability to appreciate the complex feelings that the word ‘golliwog’ provokes needs to be sat down and talked to, even if the gaffe was made in private.

Perhaps if she had been in different company the issue would never have come to light, bu as it happened the people she was speaking to at the time (Adrian Chiles and Jo Brand, according to the nationals) were offended enough not just by the use of the word, I sense, but the jokey, casual nature of its use, to tattle.

Rather than sacking Carole Thatcher, perhaps the BBC should have commissioned a doc on the history of the ‘golliwog’ character and its place in society, asked her to front it, and in the process allowed her the opportunity to confront her own ignorance and lack of sensitivity. I don’t think the word as an adjective has any place in our modern vocabulary.

As for golliwog toys: they are of an era. Some people might like them, many children might like them, and long may they be free to like them, as long as they do not underestimate them. Let it be understood – golliwogs are not merely child’s play.